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Killdeer residents warn ND Industrial Commission that 'somebody will die' if Hess Corp. advances with plans to drill near school bus route

Dunn County landowner Loren Jepson, right, consults with his attorney, Tom Gehrz, during an Industrial Commission hearing Wednesday in Bismarck.

BISMARCK -- Ross Jepson didn't say much during his testimony Wednesday morning at a North Dakota Industrial Commission Oil and Gas Division hearing on proposed drilling wells near his home north of Killdeer.

To get his point across, he didn't have to.

"If they put these wells in, somebody will die," Ross Jepson said. "With a blind intersection and all the truck traffic already, it's a dangerous area. The big thing is the (school) bus. Somebody is going to die if these go in -- I'd be willing to bet a large amount of money on it."

Loren Jepson -- Ross' father and a rancher who, along with his son, lives near one of the proposed wells -- also testified before the commission in an attempt, they said, to persuade Hess Corp., owners of the Little Knife leasing units in question, to drill instead on sites in an area to the north, away from a Killdeer Public School bus route and the Jepsons' homes.

Flanked by legal counsel John Morrison of Crowley Fleck, Hess land negotiator Tambra Sullivan told the commission that moving the drilling sites -- which Hess has requested up to eight wells for -- is not a feasible option for her employer.

"We walked the site with our surveyors and a civil engineer and they located sites that they thought were feasible and that they prefer we use," Sullivan said. "We also have the same concerns about truck traffic and safety as the Jepsons. Ultimately, our goal is to reduce truck traffic and collect both gas and oil by pipelines."

Sullivan also argued that Hess has been in contact with at least one Grassy Butte landowner, who owns parcels to the north of the outlined Little Knife sites, and that the landowner has so far refused to allow for drilling. Sullivan said that, as of now, Hess is planning to budget monies for the construction of a new pipeline for 2013, although nothing is final.

Traffic isn't the only issue.

Conservationists and Native American groups have expressed concerns in the past about oil activity near the Killdeer Mountains, which begin about eight miles northwest of Killdeer and include sites such as Medicine Hole, a sacred native location, and the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site.

Sullivan, however, testified that Hess has been given no indication from any state officials that there are native artifacts remaining in the Killdeer Mountains, an opinion Loren Jepson did not agree with.

"This section does have Indian artifacts," Loren Jepson said. "I can find arrowheads out there."

Morrison raised an objection to Jepson's statement because he isn't an "archeologist" or "paleontologist."

Oil and Gas Division Director Lynn Helms said after the hearing that he has no doubts the sites in question are clear of such artifacts.

"We should be looking at an area that doesn't have artifacts issues," Helms said. "But we have all the other issues. We're in a position of balancing the wildlife management areas, school bus routes, traffic and a set of land owners who don't want this interference in their lives. We also have a willing land owner -- the state -- that is right between these two sites and already has one well under production. We have a lot of factors we have to balance."

Conservationist and Jamestown College assistant biology professor Anne Marguerite Coyle attended the hearing in support of the Jepsons and said afterward that it is important to keep areas like the Killdeer Mountains and the wildlife management areas as free as possible from oil drilling activity.

"A lot of landowners don't want development in this region because it is a cultural treasure," Coyle said. "They've done a wonderful job of maintaining the wildlife in the area while also making a living on their land.

"Our state is favoring one industry -- the oil industry -- with many of these public lands its offering up and that's concerning. There are areas where they could drill outside of this state school (trust) land that would minimize the impacts on wildlife and on local residents. They may have to take a little hit, but, with the profit margins right now for the oil companies, I don't think that's too much to ask."

Hess' representatives at the hearing argued that -- having already come to an agreement with the state over the land the proposed well pads would sit -- the company is free to exercise its right to drill.

Helms said he expected to have a recommendation ready for the Nov. 19 IC meeting, adding that a solution where each party is happy is "probably not possible."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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